The Luminous Nature of Life

Here’s another great quote, only from Carl Jung.  

“Life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries, which themselves are one.”

I ran across it this morning and it knocked my socks off because it so exactly describes the experience I kept having while working with the dying. It appeared so obvious in that setting, the luminousness.

I mean it was fascinating enough watching all the tricks and ploys life uses to extricate itself from the bodies that have housed it for years and years, but what I wasn’t expecting was the faint radiance I kept seeing in people’s solar plexus towards the very end. It looked for all the world like the glow of a rising sun starting to burn off a dense morning fog.

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(By Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3)

I came to think of that radiance as life itself and it always changed me for a little while after I saw it, relieving me of some deep and nagging fear that I’m not usually aware I even feel. It was nice. This morning reminded me of it again, only this time as sandwiched between two great mysteries. How great is that?

Well done, Carl. Thanks.

 

 

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Little Roadside Shrine Stories

One often sees, alongside the winding, treacherous mountain highways that populate much of Idaho, little memorial shrines where some unfortunate motorist ended their life. It’s never clear what actually happened (accept for one understandably bitter memorial a few years ago siting a drunk driver as a causal factor) but the modest displays usually include some version of a cross or wreath and at least one plastic flower bouquet lovingly selected, I imagine, with an eye towards longevity in a harsh climate.

My heart always breaks a little as our car whizzes past these vignettes of sadness and loss, while that common well of human loneliness we all share sends up a few more disturbing memos. Death happens. Loss happens. Grieve for them Dia because your turn will someday come.  

I often hear ghosts crying from these places and I’ve learned not to fight it anymore because it’s too much effort and they cling anyway. It’s become easier to just let their shattered longing go ahead and touch me, to hold the dead and the stricken against my heart for a moment and then gently, tenderly lay them back down in their shrine to await the next unsuspecting car.

I’ve found that really, in the end they don’t want all that much, these ghosts, just a moment of remembering, and not only for their loss. They also whisper stories about the depths of their love and over time, as I’ve relaxed, the love stories have come to dominate the stories of loss for me.

The hubster and I recently stumbled across this little memorial shrine just off the two lane road that leads from the state highway back to Redfish Lake up near Stanley, Idaho. It’s very curious and a bit of a mystery to me–kind of a cross between the usual little roadside shrines and a regular grave. It actually reminds me of some of the informal yet clearly beloved graves we found in the Quinault Cemetery over in the Olympic Rainforest, only it’s on the side of a public road where I don’t think regulations would allow a burial of remains. Perhaps ashes were scattered somewhere in the area.

Angel headstone at Redfish Lake

It also had a simple cross standing over it, man-sized, with a cap and dog tags hung there. Someone put a lot of loving care into the crafting of the plaque which captures a life through an endearing set of images rather than the usual quotes and statistics.

Headstone close-up at Redfish Lake

I don’t know, there was something about this particular remembering that was different than anything else I’ve seen. It spoke so much more of life than death to me…and was the more poignant for it. The meat cleaver is an interesting touch, no? Balanced by the whisk on the other side, thank god. And the brilliant colors in the butterfly and blooms capture the wildflowers of spring in the area. Whoever this was, they were only twenty-one years old when they died but from the looks of it I’m led to hope that it was a very full twenty-one years.

I can hear the ghosts crying again as I study these photos…oh my heart. I’m glad and grateful this person was here for a little while, whoever they were, and that they were so clearly loved. Our lost companion.

copyright Dia Osborn 2015

Moving On: A Stop-motion Music Video by Ainslie Henderson

My son just sent me a link to this music video with the brief message, “This video reminded me of something you might like.” He knows me so well, my son.

Thought I’d pass it along because it’s just that good. Here’s a tiny, four minute, very compelling story told in yarn…yarn!…of all things. It’s a tale of life and love and loss, joy and birth and death, about being fully human I suppose. Who knew that a simple textile could be so damn eloquent? This kind of creativity just knocks my socks off.

Today I am…

Today I’m both a little fearful and a little in love.

I’m a little fearful that I may be bad somehow…a sneaky shadow from childhood no doubt, still creeping along the ground of my life trying to keep a low profile.

But I’m a little in love with my snail shells, too.

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Snails and I also go back to childhood, only in a better way. I used to spend hours and hours with these tiny friends of mine, placing them on the palm of my hand to wait however long it took until they finally worked up the nerve to peek out again…oh-so-cautiously…checking to see if the coast was clear before spilling out to explore my hand.

Honestly the level of trust required for that really knocked my socks off.

I used to find these companions in a thick groundcover of pickleweed growing on the semi-desert hillside behind our house. My snails loved the succulent jungle it provided and I’d go out on the back patio alone to pick the slimy, slug-like creatures off the leaves and cradle their impossibly fragile shells in my hands, waiting for those two graceful antennae to reappear and wave around, reaching, feeling for something…anything really…to touch. They didn’t seem to care what.

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I was fascinated by their antennae and the way they looked like they belonged underwater, slow and undulating and tube-ish and transparent. They reminded me of the multiple tendrils of sea anemone, how they drift in ocean currents, only my snails antennae waved gracefully all on their own. I thought…and still do…that it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

They were also one of the most vulnerable creatures I’d come across. Their squishability was breathtaking to me, their supposedly-protective shells totally useless, which I still consider odd and unfair and a little deceptive from a destiny standpoint to the point where I feel a little betrayed for them.

Which is why their willingness to reemerge over and over again, no matter how many times I touched their antennae and drove them back into their shells…mostly gently but sometimes a little harder, a tap, to find out just how long it would take them to try this time…blew me away. They never gave up, these ridiculously flimsy creatures. Never quit trying. Never spiraled down deep into their shells saying Fuck it. Who needs this shit? I’m staying put.

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Their curiosity won. I used to watch them for hours, secretly longing for their kind of snail-trust. I was over-the-moon smitten with these guys.

Which is why I eventually carried a handful of them into my bedroom to put in the brand new plastic jewelry box my mother had given me for my birthday. They were a treasure to me, exquisite and beautiful and full of hope, and I couldn’t have cared less that they left snail tracks all over the red, synthetic material lining the inside, the slime staining the fabric while slowly drawing it into permanent wrinkles as it dried.

Turns out my mother cared though, and she was furious when she found them. She didn’t realize what they looked like through my eyes and, falling into that perilous abyss of misunderstanding that ever-gapes between adults and children, she returned them to the patio, built a little pile with them, and buried them in a mound of salt. I felt responsible for their deaths. And very bad.

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Of course, my mother was aghast when I explained to her in later years why I’d been collecting them, and she apologized to me over and over, feeling responsible and very bad, too. But then I knew my mother always loved me like that. I never once doubted that she’d regret it once she realized what happened. Not that she’d love them like I did, because to her they were still snails, but I knew she’d cherish and mourn them with me because she loved me that much.

Sometimes I feel like I was her little snail and my childhood was full of that same kind of thing, with Mom tapping on my antennae and then watching, fascinated and patient and smitten every time, as I’d peek back out and then spill into her hands. Sometimes, sure, she tapped my antennae a little too hard and I’d wind up curled inside for longer than usual, but in the end I could and would always come out again. I could snail-trust with her. That was her gift to me.

I miss her.

Today, I’m a lot in love with my mom.

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copyright 2014 Dia Osborn

Of Storms and Stars, Whales and Grief

“People gonna be okay, storms never come to stay, they just show us how bad we need each other…how bad we need each other.”

— Mark Scibilia

I’ve been at something of a loss for words over the last few months with the successive hits that mine and the hubster’s families have been taking. Two suicide attempts by young members (one successful and one thus far not) as well as the dignified and loving departure of a beloved elder seem to have taken their toll on even my desire to talk about dying.

Who would have thought?

But this morning I came across an old Yuletide letter I wrote back in 2002 and the tender perspective expressed in it helped me remember the rich beauty and wonder I once found in the rooms of the dying, sprinkled in among all the horrors. Reading it again reminded me that what I saw back then is still true today…the dying world really does contain profound and graceful gifts…even if I can’t currently see any of them in the aftermath of recent events.

suppose this is where some faith helps. I needed reminding that the stars still hang up there in the depths of the night sky and that they’re just as luminous and lovely as ever. Certainly once this storm has spent all its fury and the clouds have finally cleared I’ll be able to find them again.

In the meantime, I can always read my old stories. 

I thought I’d go ahead and paste in the old Yuletide letter here, just in case anyone else is slogging through heavy weather and hoping for a break. Maybe it can help.

**************************************************************************

Dear everyone that we hold with deepest affection:

 Cal and I (and all unbeknownst to them—the kids) send our warmest greetings in this season of silence, celebration and relentless Christmas catalog barrage.  Here in Idaho’s banana belt we’re experiencing an inversion—a meteorological event where the warmer air at higher elevations traps the colder and dirtier air at lower elevations and those of us down under reap the harvest of all our months of collected carbon emissions in the form of smog.  A ban on wood burning is currently in effect in the valley so the cord of wood we just split stands leaning precariously by the garage while the fireplace waits cold and patient.  Cal’s primal and eager impulse to poke around in a nest of flaming materials is temporarily thwarted so for his sake I hope a low-pressure system returns to the area soon.

 This year seems to have flown by faster than any year before (a trend we’ve been noticing of late) and I suspect that it speaks to the fact of our aging.  When I think about it, it seems logical enough.  Between the two of us Cal and I now have almost 94 years of collected living to our names with all the learning and memories, laughter and heartbreak, wisdom and foolishness that that much life of necessity contains.  Think about it for a second.  When held up and compared to such an accumulation of time how long can a single year really take to pass after all?  Sometimes I think of an old-growth redwood or an ancient mountain peak or a star and I wonder what a year seems like to them.  I imagine it would be like a breath or a blink.

 A solitary heartbeat lost in aeons of warm and pulsing rhythms.

 Two great things happened this year for us.  One was a cruise to Alaska—a generous gift from Cal’s dad up one of the most magnificent coastlines I could ever imagine—and the other was the work I began with hospice.  Somehow the two are closely entwined although I’m not entirely sure how. 

The cruise was something of an enigma for me.  It was our first time and in preparing for the trip I found myself conflicted around issues of the seemingly decadent opulence of American spending and a very real anticipation of fully immersing ourselves in it. 

The food was everything I’d ever heard it would be.  We ate lobster and shrimp and French dishes and baked confections in lush dining rooms with scores of people waiting on us hand and foot.  All we had to do was ask (frequently we didn’t have to ask at all) and nothing was denied us.  There was even one climactic moment when we were sitting with our aperitifs at a linen-covered table, gazing out a huge window at the dark and choppy waters we sailed through when suddenly, Cal said, “There’s a whale!”  And when I turned to where he pointed a giant humpback suddenly breached about twenty-five feet off the side of the ship, surging up into the air with a mass and drive that staggered the imagination.  As it rose it gracefully spiraled 180 degrees, arching its body back and outwards as it twirled in a movement that looked like some kind of liquid ecstasy, before plunging back into a whitened maelstrom of water to disappear again beneath the surface.

 I felt overwhelmed by the wealth of it all—both the riches of human civilization and the priceless treasures of the wild.  Cal and I tended to forego the lure of bingo and Broadway shows, naturally gravitating toward the decks and railings of the ship where we spent our time watching the mountains and islands and vast tracks of forest gliding by.  During one shore-leave we hiked on a mountain in Juneau, climbing up beyond the hordes of camera-snapping, cruise-line tourists (no doubt attempting to elevate our own camera-snapping activities to a higher moral plane) and on into the mist and muffled silence at the top where I sang to occasional marmots and ptarmigans who tipped their heads in curiosity. 

Throughout the seven days we saw harbor seals whelping, bald eagles flocking, glaciers calving, and ice so old and compressed that it had turned a luminous color of blue.  At the peak of the cruise we sailed up a fjord (I felt such a smug sense of satisfaction to finally experience the thing that carries such an exotic name) and on that morning I stood alone out on the deck for hours, shivering in the drizzling rain and cold breezes, held spellbound by the sheer, green cliffs rising up from icy waters—their towering heads hidden by clouds, their sides split time and again with plunging waterfalls fed by spring-melting snows—and in the cold, wet, wildness of it all a silence of great age, of vastness, weighed upon me, somehow aging me, too.  Lending me a temporary grace that I suspect only comes enduringly with advancing years.

 And I recognize the same vast silence I felt that morning each time I sit by the bedside of someone dying.  It’s such a paradox to me, the moments that exist—tucked in among the bathing and dressing and care of wounds, among the laughter, overwhelm and expressions of tremendous sorrow and tenderness, among the changing of oxygen tanks and long hours of just listening and listening and listening—when I feel that same great weight of grace I felt in the fjord pressing down upon me again.  Whispering to me of an indescribable beauty of great depths and muffled echoes and mist.  And in spite of the moments of horror and heartbreak, I feel strangely uplifted. 

I’ve come to wonder if much of the difficulty in dying lies in the necessity of having to give back all the many and deeply treasured gifts we’ve been loaned for the process of living.  There’s so much to love in a lifetime be it brief or long, so much to wonder at and remember and touch with trembling fingers one last time. There are all those whom we love and our many achievements, the mountains and moonlight and extraordinary beauty of the world, the gifts of walking and laughter and being able to feed ourselves and go to the bathroom alone, and in our last moments the necessity of returning even the gifts of sight and touch and breath.

But in the end, while the gifts themselves must be returned, somehow the deep love and gratitude that they forge within us remains, growing ever more quiet and measureless upon being freed.

 I remember again the brief instant of that breaching whale.  The suddenness of it and surprise, the delight and the awe, the twisting, the power, and the arc of it’s body that seemed to express not so much purpose or deep import as a simple moment of sheer and unbridled joy.  A moment of irrepressible delight, driving it to rise high and higher for an instant of unforgettable and breathtaking splendor.  And so I’m coming to think of life.  Something so brief and unpredictable and extraordinary surging up from invisible worlds, rising within us with such drive and vitality and joy—learning through us, loving through us, touching and being touched for what amounts to only a fleeting heartbeat in the vast rhythms of creation—before ultimately returning once again to the deep and gentle mystery of the waters that are its source.

With our newly graying hair and sagging bodies we wish for you all, this year and always, that each moment of the great wounding and joy of Life will be just such an arc of unforgettable beauty.

With all our love,

Cal and Dia

A very hard week.

Cameron black and white

Hey everybody. I was working on a different post for this week but it was sidelined when our family got hit with a devastating event.  The hubster’s nephew, an extraordinary, loving, and gifted young man, took his own life Sunday night and everything since then has been aftermath.  His parent’s did everything conceivable to get him help and prevent this from happening but in the end his illness overpowered all the rest.  My mind is whirling with all the things that could and should be said about what’s happened…the desperate need for people to be more aware of how profound a danger this is to our children, the desperate need for everyone to be more willing to talk about suicide instead of hiding from it, the desperate need for better funding for our hotlines and mental health infrastructure and suicide education for the school staff who often serve as first line of defense, and the desperate need to break down the current stigmas associated with mental illness…but for today I’m still too heartbroken.

Here’s a link to Cam’s obituary that just came out today. If you’d like you can take a moment to read it and, in your heart, celebrate the beautiful life of someone who did tremendous good and helped a lot of other kids during the short time he was here, and perhaps say a prayer for him and all those who loved him, it would be more deeply appreciated than you know.  His parents felt very strongly that his cause of death should not be hidden or spun in this notice of his death as they know…better than most now…just how critical it is for all of us to start talking about this more openly.  This from the obit:

“But through all the laughter, Cam suffered from depression. He tried to disguise his pain and put to use the deep empathy, love, and compassion generated from his own life’s survival experiences to help as many other people as he could. In the end, he took his own life but he would have wanted everyone to know it was not the outcome he longed for.” 

I can’t begin to tell you how unbelievably brave his parents have been or how, even in the midst of their own devastation, their concern for the many, many other kids reeling from this loss has been uppermost in their minds.  There was a prayer vigil the other night that Cam’s dad helped organize where four or five hundred kids and parents showed up to grieve and sing and tell stories and also talk openly about suicide and the things we can do to watch and help one another to prevent this from happening again.  Everyone in that hall wanted to know.  Everyone there wanted to hear it discussed openly.  The kids especially needed the evening to help them understand and try to come to grips with what’s happened, and the way they came together and were holding and supporting and loving one another through their grief was one of the most extraordinary and moving things I’ve ever witnessed.  They’re so much stronger and courageous and wise, our children, than we tend to believe.  We grown-ups owe it to them to face into our own terrors and finally stop hiding from this.

But enough.  Today I just wanted to say I love you all, even if I don’t know you, and I can’t tell you how glad and grateful I am that you’re out there right now and still alive.  Because that one simple thing gives me more hope than you can possibly imagine. Really love one another today and reach out to someone nearby just because you still can, and do something kind or make someone smile because thats how Cam used to live every single day and why, even with all the turbulence right now, the most lasting legacy of his life will ultimately be one of laughter, love, compassion, and song.

Important links for those considering suicide or those who know someone having suicidal thoughts:

NAMI (National Alliance On Mental Illness)

List of National Suicide Hotlines (Scroll down a few inches to list)

 

Odd Thing About Dying #1: They’ve blocked most of the exits.

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Oh, those Swedes.

I was thinking the other day about important things I learned while working with hospice (and by “important” I mean things like what surprised me to the happy upsideand what do I need to know to make a graceful exit when it’s my turn?) and a few things came up.

The first is a piece of information that falls under the Graceful Exit category and is, I think, pretty important. Perhaps even critical in the same way that knowing where the emergency exit doors are located on a plane can be critical. It goes something like this:

If the current medical system was a building that we’re supposed to enter at birth and leave at death, then there’s a serious flow problem because they’ve blocked most of the exits.  

There’s basically only one official door left where people trying to get out are allowed to leave the building without a fight. (More on that below.)

No doubt about it, we’re living in an unusual age.  Dying has become very hard to accomplish, which is weirdly wonderful until it’s actually time to die and then it totally, totally sucks.  It wasn’t always like this.  For roughly the last thousand years of Western civilization, people used to die according to a fairly simple formula:

a) They lived for a time.

b) They got really sick or severely injured.

c) They realized they’d never get better.

d) They summoned, reconciled, forgave, received forgiveness, and bequeathed.

e) Then they went ahead and died.

(Except for those who died suddenly and went straight from A to E.  It’s interesting to note that while nowadays many feel that’s an ideal way to go, historically it was frowned upon.  Dante for instance, relegated some of the souls that died unexpectedly to the lowest circle of hell which, I don’t know, seems a bit harsh. I’d be curious to know his thinking on that one, although he looks like a scary guy to argue with.)

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This by Sandro Botticelli.

Due to some of our pretty extraordinary medical advances however, that ancient formula isn’t working so well anymore and while we’re still following the first two steps…

a) We live for a while.

b) Then we get really sick or severely injured.

…once we get to Step C things fall apart at the seams.  Our bodies can now be kept alive almost indefinitely which has made it a lot harder, sometimes impossible, for people to either slip out without any fuss or at least figure out when it’s time to let go.  I’m not exaggerating here.  The bottleneck of bewildered, milling, hospital gowned people trailing IV poles and looking for a definitive answer has grown so massive that it’s threatening not only our healthcare system but our entire economy.

So why is this happening?  Well there are actually a lot of reasons but I’m only going to address two of them here.  The first is that, while modern medicine has a variety of goals, there’s a kind of One Goal To Rule Them All.  Our current healthcare system has evolved around the central purpose of keeping everyone alive for as long as possible which, for the vast majority of our lives, is a good, noble, sacred thing, and one which I think we’re all pretty grateful for.

The problem arises when someone realizes that oh, it’s my time, so they gather their things and head for the nearest exit (these are the doors with signs overhead like Heart Attack, Pneumonia, Sepsis, Aneurysm, Dehydration, Flu, Respiratory Failure etc.)  But there are guards on all these doors who turn them back with shock paddles, intubation, or offers of antibiotics, vaccinations, IVs, etc., sometimes over and over and over again.  People trying to leave the building often have to spend a lot of time and money frantically going from door to door until they’re finally so frustrated that they just overpower the guards and escape anyway.

I read a recent story of an elderly gentleman with a heart condition who decided he’d lived a long enough/good enough life and was now ready to go.  After much deliberation he decided to decline any further interventions and treatments, filled out an advance directive, got his wife and doctors all on board with his decision, and even signed a Do Not Resuscitate order.

Then he went golfing where he had a major heart attack somewhere around the seventh hole.  Panicked bystanders called 911 which, unfortunately, activated the guards standing next to that particular door.  The EMT’s sprang into action and once they arrived on the scene nothing could really stop them.  (Please keep in mind that emergency responders are bound by some strict legal codes to preserve life and deliver it to the hospital.)  Evidently, even the man’s advance-directive-bearing-wife couldn’t get them to stop (I wonder where the DNR was and if it would have made a difference?) and so our elderly gentleman had to endure the overwhelming pain and multiple broken ribs of CPR along with many other uncomfortable resuscitative efforts in both the ambulance and the emergency room before he finally died from his heart attack anyway, just far more broken, disheveled, and black and blue than if he’d been allowed to die back on the green. (And then his wife got the bill.)

Needless to say this was not how he wanted to exit the building.  At all.  Most people don’t want to leave this way.  Nevertheless, this kind of situation happens over and over again because right now there’s still a sizable disconnect between emergency medical services and end of life care.  (And preventive services and end of life care.  And routine care and end of life care.  And…well, pretty much the entire medical system and end of life care.) This kind of thing happens in nursing homes and assisted living facilities and hospitals, too, and everyone knows it’s a big problem. The good news is that solutions are currently being sought.  The bad news is a lot of the problem is structural and hard to change.  Even so I’m confident we’ll figure something out eventually.

So in the meantime, what’s a person who’s ready to go and wants to avoid extraordinary medical measures to do?

Well, this is where that One Official Exit I mentioned earlier comes in.  You’ve probably already guessed by now but the sign over this door reads HOSPICE (and to a growing extent the up and coming PALLIATIVE CARE.)  Just so you know, people who queue up at this door are hands down the most likely to have their passports stamped and passed right on through in a graceful, peaceful, unmolested way.

Sounds simple enough, no?  I thought so too, but in reality this particular door, even though it’s the one that everyone respects and agrees on, is still the most misunderstood and underutilized exit of them all.  Why?

Well, that brings me to the second reason why people tend to bottleneck in end-of-life care these days, but I don’t have room for it here so I’ll have to cover it in the next post:

Odd Thing About Dying #2: We’d like some destiny with our death please.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Related articles:

“Maybe we need to redefine “Palliative Care.”

“Hospice Misunderstood by Patients, Providers Alike”

“Why MOST doctors like me would rather DIE than endure the pain of treatment we inflict on others for terminal diseases.”

There’s a whole lotta love coming out of Oklahoma

20130812_131340_resizedBook Review: Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death by Becki Hawkins.

Some of you may remember an old post I wrote called Someone Else Wrote My Book: What Now? where I expressed some angst at the discovery that a hospice nurse/chaplain from Oklahoma had just published the book I was trying to write.   Well, after a year of dark muttering in my cups I finally read Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death by Becki Hawkins and loved it.  Loved.

Her book brought it all back to me again in the best way, what it used to feel like when I worked with hospice and how the people I served strengthened, nourished, and changed me.  Transitions provides an authentic portrayal of the endless number of ways that people face catastrophic illness and death, not in a clinical or grisly way, but in terms of the beautiful and vulnerable humanity that inevitably surfaces.

More poignant still, Becki reveals the transformative power generated by something as simple as accepting the overwhelm and grief of another human being.  There are some terrific reviews over on Amazon that do a better job than I could at describing her gentle, loving handling of the subject matter (especially the one titled Nurse Conquers Attack Geese, Copperheads, Sceptics which I wanted to copy and paste in full here but didn’t for fear of getting caught) so I won’t try and cover that ground again.  I’ll just mention a few of the particular reasons why I loved the book so much myself.

Number one, Becki’s career spanned decades and her stories are written through the eyes of someone who’s seen people die from a lot of different things, something that’s actually pretty rare.  I got to take the journey again with her as she evolved and changed through the work and it took me right back to the mystery, magic, and intense vulnerability one experiences while roaming the dying rooms.  The way that each person winds up teaching what an extraordinary, mind blowing feat it is to live an entire life from beginning to the very end.

There is no such thing as a boring life, just boring ways to talk about it (something one encounters both in and out of hospice.)  But with some practice, good listening skills can overcome that problem and Becki’s clearly a master listener.  She draws out the thoughts of those she worked with in a way that allowed a quality of luminous, trembling soul to shine through and the book is full of the kind of dignity and strength that results from that level of respect.

Which brings me to the second reason I loved the book.  Becki not only captures the full range of experiences of what it’s like to work with the ill and dying, she captures it in the abundant charm of the Oklahoma vernacular.  She has quite an ear for the spoken word and delivers her stories in an enjoyable blend of modern medical language and the older, traditional language of her people. For me, the book was as much a loving portrayal of the culture and people of rural Oklahoma as it was of their health status, and when reading her stories I felt like I was peering in through a window to catch glimpses of an old wisdom tradition passed down through the generations.

A quick head’s up for those who are not of a religious bent, a lot of this wisdom tradition is couched in the religious terms of the region and from a couple of reviews I read this was a stumbling block for some people.  It was actually part of the reason it took me so long to read the book myself but as I got to know Becki personally over the last year I discovered that she’s one of those people who can love her own faith while also respecting and supporting the beliefs of others and that knowledge helped me relax and let down my shields.  I’m really glad I did, as I would have missed something beautiful, heartfelt, and universally true otherwise.  No matter how we express it individually, we all die with the same aching mixture of heightened longing and love.

And the final reason I loved it that I’ll mention here is because in the last section of the book Becki reveals how her professional work with the ill and dying eventually helped her navigate the illness and dying of her own loved ones, and I found her experiences to be a confirmation of my own.  While the illness and death of a loved one is just as overwhelming for those of us who’ve worked with the dying…the loss as great and the grief as piercing…still our familiarity with and intimate understanding of the dying process helps enormously when the time comes.  I can’t say this enough.  A knowledge and understanding of dying is an anchoring influence for everyone involved.

Of course everyone can’t go out and become a nurse and work for decades in the field to gain that kind of familiarity and understanding, but everyone can read books like this and begin to arm themselves with the knowledge of those who have.

I know I keep saying this over and over again but it’s only because it’s so important: We all need to be better educated about this last and greatest journey of dying, and we need to start doing it now.  The number of aging people approaching their final threshold is growing daily and in the next few decades dying will become a central, collective social event.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be a sad, tragic, and horrible era.  At all.  With the tools and perspective that hospice and palliative care provide it’s entirely possible for us to collectively craft a thoughtful, courageous, and wiser way to approach the end of our lives, one that’s dignified, loving, generous, and ultimately life-nourishing for us all.

Transitions: A Nurse’s Education About Life and Death is another book among a (thankfully) growing number that provides a window into such an approach.  I highly recommend it.

Other references:

Here’s a Youtube video of an engaging talk Becki Hawkins gave in Sedona, Arizona about some of the spiritual experiences she saw in her work.

And here’s a link to Becki’s blog Transitions.

What Color is Dying? (Hint: It’s a Trick Question)

1000px-Question_opening-closing.svg

During a chat over coffee this morning a colleague asked me the above-mentioned question and…I admit it…the first color that came to mind was black.

He smiled and said that was the first color that came to his mind, too, and during the following discussion we agreed that black would probably be the first color springing to mind for the majority of Americans and possibly other western cultures, too.  (It would probably be white for many of those from eastern cultures.)

So why is this a trick question?  Because black (and white in some cultures) is the color associated with death.  But dying people aren’t dead yet.  They’re still very much alive.  This question reveals how we tend to subconsciously view the dying as close-enough-to-dead-to-count, an unfortunate tendency that does a lot of harm to everybody.

This prejudice is deeply ingrained as evidenced by the fact that even my colleague and I (who have worked extensively with the dying in hospice) still defaulted to black as our first association.  Like any solid prejudice I believe it’ll take work to examine, uproot, and then change it, but it’s worth the effort because if we don’t, we’ll all wind up as one of “those people” while we’re dying and suffer the stigma and exile that currently goes along with it.

Once my colleague and I recognized and talked about our conditioned response, we then asked the question again and came up with completely different responses.  He said that, for him, dying is actually quite purple, a color that he loves and relates to on a deep level.  I on the other hand kept seeing a prism in my mind, shattering a sunbeam into a thousand different colors.

And here’s what I found most interesting about the difference.  When I saw dying as black I felt like I’d just pulled a plastic bag over my head.  But when I let that go and suddenly saw it as a prism full of rainbows instead, that feeling of suffocation turned into curiosity and wonder and a delightful sense of mystery which honestly was the experience I tended to actually have when I worked with hospice.  It was really, really magical hanging out with dying people, not black at all.

BTW, the opening/closing question marks at the top of the post came from a Wikipedia discussion of question marks (“also known as an interrogation pointinterrogation markquestion pointquery, or eroteme”), which was kind of interesting in its own right and totally distracted me.  (Not hard to do though.)  Here’s the link.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Random Hot Tip About Dying #5

the-tunnel-of-trees

(This photo is taken from an email forward I received full of beautiful tunnel photos, none of which were credited of course.  Grrrr.  I’d LOVE to give credit where it’s so richly deserved so if anyone knows who took this shot, please, please, please let me know!)

This post is continued, as expected, from Random Hot Tip #4.  It’s a looooong one.  Sorry.  (Although if you think reading it is hard, you should try writing it.  F**k.)

Last but not least we come to random hot tip #5:

There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone.  Pick yours and start making it work for you now.

To be honest, this morning I’m wishing I never added this tip to the list.  It’s a loaded subject…something I realized with chagrin as soon as I sat down to write this.  Plus, I’m not a chaplain or an atheist or a ghost or anyone else qualified to address either side of this existential topic with authority.

But since I swore to myself that this time I’d follow through and explain every last tip I so glibly tossed out there, I guess I’m stuck with it. I’m only going to share what I observed and then one thought I had about it, hopefully without upsetting anyone enough to make them yell at me.  Here goes.

One of the many intriguing things I encountered while working with hospice was the wide range of beliefs about what happens after a person dies.  I’d already heard about most of them of course, but still, they take on a whole new light in a hospice setting.

For one thing, they finally matter.  A lot.  The people I was working with were about to actually find out what happens for themselves, and they cared about it in a way that people who aren’t dying yet just don’t.

In addition, I was experiencing a kind of full body immersion in each belief while hopping from home to home.  Working in hospice, it’s critical to understand and embrace the unique beliefs of each home we enter in order to best support the dying person and their loved ones from the foundation they’ve built in their own lives.  We don’t have to adopt their beliefs of course…we can’t, there are too many of them and often conflicting besides…but we try to observe every sign of respect, and look closely for whatever value, love, and strength is inherent in each, and then use that as much as possible to deliver our help.

(It really changes you, by the way, learning how to find, respect, and embrace the good in someone else’s beliefs without having to believe it yourself.  I can’t tell you how much more mysterious and beautiful and friendly the world becomes in an instant.  It’s pretty amazing. Harder to do outside a hospice setting though.)

I couldn’t help but notice how much this particular belief, the one about what happens to a person after they die, influenced the way each person viewed the value of whatever life they had left, as well as shaping how they faced their dying process.  While each belief I encountered was absolutely unique, collectively they seemed to break down into three broad categories:

1) The belief that their spirit or consciousness or self will continue in some way afterwards.

2) The belief that their consciousness or personality or sense-of-self will end with physical death (and hopefully that their legacy lies in the good effect they had on the world.  Without this second part their depression was pretty pronounced.)

3) The belief that they really, truly don’t know what happens and they’re waiting to find out.

The majority of people around here fell into the first category, which was also the one that seemed to help most with a person’s fear of dying (unless they felt guilty about something and worried about punishment after the fact.)

The number of people in the second category were far fewer and, while they savored the sweetness available at the end as much as anyone, overall I found them less prepared to cope with the many indignities involved, with a greater tendency to devalue their life as their helplessness grew.

And in the end I didn’t see anyone who genuinely believed number three.  While there were a number of people who said they didn’t know what happens (actually, they always said nobody knows what will happen) it eventually became clear that really, they believed in one of the other two but were just reluctant to say so for various reasons.

Okay.  That’s what I observed.  Now here’s one of the main thoughts I had about it.

I think all three beliefs have the potential to wield a final influence that’s helpful or harmful.  But in reality, there was a general trend worth noting.

Belief Number One…the one that says some version of the self continues after death…usually did the best job of helping the dying person face and navigate the profound challenges involved at the end of life.  These people tended to experience less bitterness about the indignities they were experiencing and genuinely longed for their lives more all the way to the end.

Now, BEFORE ANYONE STARTS SCREAMING AT ME:

I’m not suggesting that this in any way makes Belief Number One a superior belief, or that it means everyone should embrace it.  I’m not.  That would be utterly useless and disrespectful besides.

What I DO think is that Belief Number One has had tens of thousands of years worth of a head start on weaving some kind of nourishing, helpful meaning into the overwhelming existential realities of dying and death.  Collectively, we’ve been living with, exploring, and deepening our belief in an afterlife since the dawn of human history so no wonder it works for us now.

Belief Number Two (let’s leave Three out of this for a moment) is a relative newbie on the scene and has, in some ways understandably, spent more of its time trying to reject the meaning offered by Belief Number One than it has developing an alternative but equally helpful and nourishing meaning of its own. But with the growing number of people embracing this belief I think it’s work that really needs to be done if they’re not to overwhelmingly choose suicide or euthanasia at the end as seems to be the current trend. (I only mention this because killing ourselves and each other, especially in large numbers, can wreak havoc on a society.)

We humans need meaning. It’s not a weakness, it’s just a thing.

I have a couple of friends who believe they’ll cease to exist at the point of death (actually they believe everyone will, but then that spirit of generalization is a quality generally shared across beliefs.)  But they also feel a profound curiosity about some tendrils of mystery they glimpsed during an experience with the loss of a loved one.  They feel attracted to what they experienced and uplifted by it, but are reluctant to admit it publicly because it’s precisely the kind of thing that’s so easy for the other side to misunderstand, twist, and then crow over.

But in private they share that they’re as moved as anyone else by the symptoms of strange and serendipitous beauty they witnessed towards the end.  It’s just that they ascribe the mystery involved to something else, even if they’re not entirely sure what yet.

And then there’s Belief Number Three.  Even though I never worked with a patient who truly embraced this belief, I know other people who do, at least so far.  (We’ll see if it holds up under the final test.)  And, after six years of watching people die, this is the one that I myself have drifted in closest to.

I’ve had a number of people over the years ask me some version of the question After everything you’ve seen what do YOU think happens after a person dies?   And honestly?  At this point I kind of feel like the sky’s the limit.  I suspect anything can happen.  Maybe ALL of it happens, just to different people.  Maybe some go to Valhalla or Hades or Heaven, maybe some stick around for a while to help their descendents along, maybe some really do just cease to exist while others merge with Nirvana or a mountain or the entire universe somehow.  Maybe some reincarnate, or get stuck haunting for a while, while others continue on in some way or form or place that nobody has even imagined yet.

I really, truly don’t know what to believe about all that anymore.

But I’ll share something I experienced numerous times that left a deep impression. It was this sensation of a vast kind of love that tended to show up in the dying rooms.  How, when everything else was finally stripped away and all of us were left there, raw and quivering and totally exposed, what remained was this current of love in the room that swept me off my feet and sent me reeling every single time.  I honestly, hand to god, don’t know where it was coming from…that’s my mystery.  Whether it was just me feeling it, or if it was coming from the other people who were there, or from something outside of us all, or some combination that then took on an existence of its own, I just don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s influence was about as real as it gets.  It was tangible and helpful in the most physical way, and weirdly it both seared and reassured me, and sometimes other people told me it helped them, too, and over time as my eyes adjusted to it, I started to see it in a lot more places.  Like…well, almost everywhere.  And after a while the sheer energy of it started to transform me to the point where I was having a little trouble functioning in the world actually, which is an interesting but different story.

And then one day I realized, to my surprise, that I was shifting away from everything I used to believe in and starting to just believe in that experience of love instead.  And that’s kind of where I am now.  I have no idea what will happen after I die and don’t really care beyond some mild curiosity.  However, I do hope that whatever happens, this big love that gets generated from where-I-do-not-know will still be around because, if it is, I feel like I can deal with anything else.

That being said, the question of “afterwards” feels kind of irrelevant to me right now.  The big gift I’m getting out of believing in this love is that, whatever happens next, it’s nurturing and comforting me today.  It makes me want to be a better, kinder, more compassionate and understanding person now, it lends me courage and meaning and strength now, and it inspires me to take better care of my little corner of the world right now.

And ultimately, I think that’s something practical and immediate that any of these belief should also shoot for.  Whether or not they wind up being true in the long run, if they deepen and enrich and strengthen our lives and communities and world right now then we should develop and embrace them.  Because we desperately need all the help we can get while we’re here.

Anyway, that’s my two cents worth.  Add a couple dollars and it’ll buy you a beer.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

 

After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission

Good Without God

Random Hot Tip About Dying #3

(And now that the Modo Adventure has come to it’s happy conclusion I return to the Random Tips About Dying series.  This post is continued from Random Hot Tip About Dying #2.)

The third tip goes something like this:

3) Learn about dying from people who are familiar and comfortable with it.  The terrified can’t teach you much you don’t already know.

One evening I went to a restaurant with a convivial group of people to hang out after a community meeting.  There were about nine of us, all adults except for one young adolescent girl who accompanied her mom.

During the free-for-all discussion that rolled around the table over dessert the young girl, a devoted animal lover, shared with shining eyes that she wanted to start volunteering with the local Humane Society.  But before she could even finish the sentence her mother torpedoed the idea by telling her, “But honey you don’t understand.  They put animals down there.”

800px-Puppy_near_Coltani_-_17_apr_2010

I listened to the murmur of assent rising from everyone else at the table and watched the girl’s shining eyes grow stormy as one person after another tried to explain (in the kindest way) that she didn’t know what she was getting into and that, really, she wanted to stay as far away from that kind of thing as possible.

She tried to argue but no one would listen. As a group they were convinced that their deep aversion was in fact the wise and correct response.  In the meantime I was sitting there having vivid flashbacks of the same kind of reaction I received from people when I first shared that I wanted to work with hospice.

Initially, the girl was just frustrated but then I saw a kind of helplessness start to settle in as she felt the door closing on her dream of caring for vulnerable animals.  We could all see that she felt a calling deep down in that place where we get those kinds of messages, but nonetheless every set of arms present was trying to hold her back from answering it. Her shoulders finally sagged as she fell into angry silence.

I heard somebody explaining that the animals are just going to die anyway, and then there was a momentary lull as everyone nodded their heads and gazed at the girl in sympathy.

I finally spoke up.

“But, you guys,” I looked around the table as every head swung my way.  “They still need love before they die. Even more so.”

I watched as each face registered first surprise, then a dawning thoughtfulness as they considered this other perspective.  In the meantime, the girl looked like a wilting flower that had just been watered.

She sat back up, smiled, and said, “Yeah. YEAH!  That’s what I mean, that’s what I wanna do! I’m not afraid of them dying.”

She waxed on with renewed enthusiasm for about a minute as everybody else sat and digested the idea.  Then one of the men turned towards me with a puzzled smile and said, “I never thought of it like that but it’s really true. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

Which leads me back to tip #3.  This story is a prime example of what a closed loop looks like.  Everyone sitting at that table believed the same thing: that dying was something repugnant and horrible to be avoided at all costs, even if it meant abandoning a group of vulnerable animals and thwarting a young girl’s dream in the process. And because they all believed it, all they could do is reinforce and confirm each other’s belief.

Please understand, it’s not that they didn’t care about all those dogs and cats at the shelter.  They did, a lot. Boise is a powerful animal advocacy town and the adoption rates are actually higher here than most of the country.  We love our four-footed friends around here, we really do.

But in this case, the group’s fear of dying outweighed their love for animals for the simple reason that they’d never been presented with a different perspective from someone who didn’t believe that dying is repugnant and horrible and to be avoided at all costs.  Granted people like that are a minority in the population right now, but there are more of us than you’d think and the numbers are growing.  Finding someone who’s familiar and comfortable with dying isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be.

I should add that this story is a prime example of something else that bears noting: There’s a pernicious subconscious assumption permeating our cultural view that anything dying is already as good as dead.  This one drives me nuts.  It’s not true.  NOT TRUE.

NOT. TRUE. AT. ALL.

Dying animals and people are still very, very, very much alive and, more than almost any other time of life, they need to be gathered in, supported, nourished, and loved…NOT abandoned.  (That is, of course, unless they want to crawl off into the bushes and die alone in which case I’m all for respecting their wishes.  But that’s different than abandoning them.)

In a future post I’d like to publish a list of links to posts, articles, and other resources that  provide a view of dying that’s more holistic than the current, entrenched one. It’s a view that acknowledges the hardships involved but also reveals the moving and luminous beauty that involved in life at it’s last.  But that will take some time to assemble so not today.

Next post should be about Random Tip #4: A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

P.S. The photo of the adorable Doberman puppy above is from a Wikipedia article about dogs and can be found here.

P.P.S. Here are the previous posts in this series:

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Random Hot Tip About Dying #2

Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 and Follow Through

Finish

(This photo is borrowed from an excellent post on the blog Prof KRG dealing with the same challenge from a different angle.  Useful stuff, here.)  

There are two things I’d like to cover in this post:

1)  Finishing (or not) what I start.

2) Explaining Hot Tip #1 About Dying from my last post as I (hinted suggested prevaricated half-promised wiggled and sleazed) mentioned I might.

Finishing what I start.

Follow through, where writing is concerned, is not my strong point.  I know it.  My writer’s group knows it.  Anyone who’s seen the three-year old I gotta copyright it for the book, man… notice in my sidebar and yet can find nothing else about the book anywhere on this blog has probably figured it out by now.  I’m in serious danger of turning into a writer’s cautionary tale, an Aesop’s fable about what happens when you never actually finish any of the writing you start.  (Hint: You eventually turn into a fattening, graying dilettante who spends the rest of her life writing flashy first chapters and then basking in the dwindling number of wows she gets from the dwindling number of readers who have a dwindling tolerance level for that kind of tease.)

I’m not there yet although my fear of it is rising exponentially because I’ve just launched my fourth major assault in six years on this book I’m trying to write.  It’s morphed from non-fiction into creative non-fiction into fiction.  From a kind of helpful guide into a memoir into an imaginary story.  It looks nothing…nothing…like any previous version and deep down I’m now terrified that I’m just swimming around in circles but consoling myself that at least I’m covering a lot of miles.

There are only two possibilities left:  Either it’s a structural/voice problem as I keep telling myself, or it’s a basic discipline/courage problem.

And actually, as I was writing the above I realized it’s both.  But the second problem is bigger.

It’s not that I don’t spend hours writing everyday, I do.  My butt time is duly noted and logged every morning just like it’s supposed to be.  No.  The problem is that I spend those hours writing, then rewriting, then micro-rewriting the same sentence/paragraph/page over and over again because I’m absolutely terrified of writing something that will make me look stupid/bad/inept/untalented, and because it’s a whole lot less risky to edit than create.  (Like right now I’m thinking of shelving this post because it’s already too long and who cares about my writing process anyway you narcissist and why can’t I just distill it into the heart and soul of the thing instead of using three million fucking words for a blog post and I’ve now reread/tweaked this paragraph seven times because I’m too scared to keep going…you get the picture.)

This has got to change.  Today I’ll take a stab at it with a baby step.  I’ll follow through on something I wanted to do after my last blog post, which brings me to my second object with this post:

Explaining Random Hot Tip About Dying #1 from my last post.  For those who don’t remember, the tip goes something like this:

“Dying is as much a gift as it is a punishment.  Pick which view to invest in carefully as it will affect your entire life.”

The gift-part can be a little difficult to see, especially if you’re not that familiar with dying. But there are actually a lot of gifts and they tend to be profound.

(Like, for instance, if I never finish my book at least I’ll eventually die and be done with it.)

I’m kidding…kind of…but it’s still true.  For me, as a long-time depressive, the knowledge that none of the dark periods I cycle through can last forever has lent me endurance more times than I can count, and actually saved my life on the two hardest days when I finally lost hope.

The dying people I worked with gave me another gift I’ll never be able to repay. It was while I was with them, listening to all the stories about living from those facing certain death, that I finally learned the secret of  how to long for my own life.

They also taught me about how dying can be a final act of generosity, a way of saying I’ve loved this life so dearly but have taken enough for myself. It’s someone else’s turn now, to come into the world and stand where I’ve stood, to love what I’ve loved. Thank you.

And in allowing me to watch the way their beautiful, tender, wasting bodies were unravelling and vanishing they taught me about the difference between life and Life.  How biological existence is one kind of luminous miracle, how the consciousness rising within it is a second, and how the love those two things wind up generating between them is the third and greatest miracle that transcends and outlasts them both.

But I’m getting mystical again…which, honestly, I can’t really help but need to at least try and curb a little.

In any case, these are just a handful of the gifts that I discovered about dying.  There are more, lots more, but in the end each person has to delve in and discover their own, and they’ll be different for everyone.  It’s worth the effort because it can help to change the lifelong prospect of dying from something horrible, unnecessary, miserable, and bleak to something that’s a little more helpful, even nourishing, to the life we get to live until then.

So that’s it.  I’ve actually finished follow-up baby step #1!  My confidence is building.

Next up: A post explaining Random Hot Tip About Dying #2 which goes something like this:

“Accepting dying might not always make it easier when it comes, but being horrified is guaranteed to make it worse.”  

Now if I can just press the publish button I’ll be in business.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Five Randomly Useful Hot Tips About Dying

(Quick note: These tips refer to dying, not death. I don’t have any hot tips for death yet. For those confused on the difference, dying is that thing we do at the end while we’re still very much alive.  –Editor)

1) Dying is as much a gift as it is a punishment.  Pick which view to invest in carefully as it will affect your entire life.

2) Accepting dying might not always make it easier when it comes, but being horrified is guaranteed to make it worse.  (Trust me on this one.)

3) Learn about dying from people who are familiar and comfortable with it.  The terrified can’t teach you much you don’t already know.

4) A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

5) There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone.  Pick yours and start making it work for you now.

If I don’t get distracted by another idea (a big if these days) I’ll try and elaborate on these tips in upcoming posts.  I imagine they probably need it.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Life’s glorious illusion

Zan_Zig_performing_with_rabbit_and_roses,_magician_poster,_1899-2

It’s something, to watch a person die.  It truly is.  It’s amazing to watch them being born, too, which I’ve also done, the way that one moment there are three or four people in the room and then the next there’s a fifth only nobody came through the door.  It’s like magic.  Like watching someone pull a rabbit out of a hat, only a gooey one, with no fur and a weird shaped head.

Watching a person die is like magic, too, only rather than someone appearing out of nowhere it’s more like watching them climb in a box and get sawed in half.  One moment they’re all in one piece and waving at you and then the next they’re split in two, a body on one side of the box and the life it used to contain on the other, and for all you’re worth, you can’t figure out how it was done.

I was shocked, the first time I saw it. Maybe the second and third time, too, or longer even, but sooner or later I started to get the hang of it and the shock wore off.  I stopped being offended by the indignities involved, which then made it easier to notice some of the other details.

Like the fact that afterwards, there’s this beautiful leftover body lying on the bed which, it suddenly becomes crystal clear, really, truly is just a body, a big bag of physical stuff that all by itself, God bless its little heart, can’t do a whole lot.  I always knew that’s what it was of course but still, I didn’t really.  I kept forgetting because it was wearing this delightful, shimmering life disguise, kind of like puffed-up peacock plumage full of rainbows and a million eyes, and it made that body look like it was more, a lot more, than just a physical bag of stuff.

It’s a helluva trick.

But still, in the end, it is what it is and has to revert to form.  I watched my first person die, my grandmother, and was stunned when her amazing, beautiful body went limp on the bed like it did.  It looked so helpless and vulnerable and smaller somehow, lying there all by itself, and I got confused. It was like someone had just pulled a big, velvet curtain back to expose the little man standing behind it with nary a wizard to be seen.  Huh-oh, I thought, and then couldn’t stop staring because it just looked so wrong. 

But that was the first time, when I was inexperienced and didn’t know any better.  Eventually though, when I got more used to it, the whole idea of a body without a life inside it turned out to be more okay than I thought.  Left to their own devices bodies, like exposed wizard imposters, are actually kind of endearing in their own fragile, comical kind of way, and when I stopped expecting them to be great and all-powerful it was a lot easier to see their smaller body-specific joys and relax.  To laugh a little and enjoy the illusion.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to see it again and again like I did…how a body and the life it contains whisper their lingering farewells and then go their separate ways.  It gave me a chance to get over the first shock and discover the mistake I’d been making, that a body really, truly is just a body and that I can still love it anyway.  Wildly and more than ever.

It would have been such a bummer to only see someone die once and then be left forever afterwards, stuck in the shock and confusion.  I wish more people could be as fortunate as me.

I wonder if it would help others be less afraid of being there for those who are dying?  Maybe even help them recover more quickly afterwards with at least one of the traumas involved lightened a little.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Weddings and Funerals and Hospice, Oh My!

Required: Emotional Flexibility to handle wide swings.

There’s a lot going on these days.  First: A news headline.

Beloved daughter and longtime boyfriend get engaged on Valentine’s Day, set date for June.  Mother surprises herself and approves.

Why the surprise? Well, partly because I’m not a big fan of weddings.  In my teens, I used to have nightmares about being a bride trapped in a church ceremony from which there was no escape and I’d wake up every time with my heart pounding, scared to go back to sleep.  These dreams left an impression.  In waking life, I actually ran away during my wedding to the hubster and he had to head me off before I made it into the woods, then carry me back.  (He’s both quick and strategic, thank God.  But that’s a story for another post.)

And then, of course, there are all the other things to worry about where the post-wedding marriage is concerned, especially when entered into by a couple of novices who are all dazed and happy and oblivious to that circle of glowing eyes waiting just beyond the twinkle-lit garden.

But in spite of my entrenched dread of weddings and general worrying nature, when Beloved Daughter and Soon To Be Son-In-Law (SIL) sat us down and told us the news, my first response was enthusiastic and joyful and even…god help me but it’s true…optimistic.  You could have knocked me over with a feather.  I was actually happy for them which, I should mention, is an excellent sign since my initial, gut level reaction to things is usually pretty accurate.

So, reality #1: I’m in happy wedding mode.

Then there’s the other thing happening.

The hubster’s whole family is still in hospice mode, circling the wagons around Mon Pere as he cheerfully and busily packs as much as possible into the shining, beloved life that still remains to him.  I haven’t posted any updates in a while but he continues to amaze in his approach to the whole thing.

He’s slowed down considerably and is sleeping more and more, but even so he still goes out to attend classes at the local university, voraciously reads and replenishes a stack of books that would choke a pig, gets together with family and friends for every occasion possible, and has thrown himself into a cause that would be of enormous benefit to the safety of our entire community.

He’s extraordinary.  Really.  When I think of how much earlier we probably would have lost him if he hadn’t gone on hospice and started receiving good palliative care, I shudder.  There are too many lives being worsened or cut short these days because of overly aggressive treatment or uncoordinated care late in life, and I’m profoundly grateful…every single day…that Mon Pere managed to steer clear of those treacherous shoals.

He’s a wily old fish, that one.

So, reality #2: I’m also in emotional, unpredictable hospice mode.

Then there was this third thing that happened last week.

The hubster’s oldest and best friend lost his 90+ year old mother a week and a half ago and the family held the funeral Thursday evening.  The hubster and I attended, as did Mon Pere since he’s also close to Best Friend.

In fact, Best Friend asked Mon Pere (who is an excellent public speaker) to stand up for him and read a brief vignette he’d written about his mother during the funeral, since he knew he’d break down and sob uncontrollably if he tried to read it himself.  Mon Pere was happy to help out in any way he could.

What happened next was moving and astonishing to me.

In a curious turn of events, the hospice that cared for Best Friend’s mother is the same hospice currently caring for Mon Pere, and since the chaplain presiding over the funeral proceedings was the chaplain for this hospice, Mon Pere knew her quite well.

So before he started reading the vignette, he took a moment to express his appreciation for the chaplain specifically and the kind of work that hospice people do in general, and then things became startlingly poignant when he shared that the reason he knew her was because he was currently in hospice himself with prostate cancer.

I heard the woman sitting behind us gasp when he said it, and there was a brief, electric rustle that went through the room before things settled back down again.  It was only a few sentences spoken simply and sincerely, as though he was sharing that he and the deceased had an old school friend in common, and then he bent his head to read Best Friend’s story.  And that was that.

It was a brief moment, startling and fragile and honest and moving, but everything afterwards was made a little bit more beautiful and real and immediate for it. It was like he’d taken a needle and innocently woven an additional, luminous thread into the tapestry of all of us assembled there, and suddenly life was no longer just a two-dimensional kind of us and them thing anymore—those who are alive and those who are dead.

For a heartbeat he stood there, simple and shining, as a reminder that life isn’t so much a table that we fall off and disappear from as it is a perpetually flowing river, something that’s sweeping us all from upstream to downstream to a final spill out into a big ocean that was always waiting there to receive us.  Best Friend’s mother washed into that sea a week and a half ago while Mon Pere’s pace is picking up in a final, quickening rush to get there, but that doesn’t mean either of them will ever be gone.  They can’t be gone because no matter how far ahead they and their peers get, it’s still the same water carrying us all.

So.  In my third and final reality these days I am:

Wedding-happy, hospice-reeling, funeral-touched, and bobbing somewhere along the length of a winding, luminous river filled from headwaters to ocean with dearly beloved companions.

Which makes today another very, very good day.  Shakespeare (as usual) says it best:

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copyright Dia Osborn 2013